A publication of the Department of English & Philosophy at Drexel University

Rice Paddies and Math Tests

In a chapter of his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell ties together language and culture to answer the question of why Asians (more particularly the Chinese) are better at math. I had always accredited this “stereotype” to pushy parents and extra hours of tutoring at the Kumon Math centers in my hometown of Irvine, CA. Apparently my parents did too because they sent me to the grueling lessons for years. Unluckily for me, they did not improve my skills. However, now thanks to Gladwell’s piece, I can give them the explanation they always wanted as to why I wasted their money and never finished a simple computations timed-test.

According to Gladwell, and my interpretation, it could be more their fault than mine. The chapter I read, entitled Rice Paddies and Math Tests, argues that language and ancestry are the reason Asians are better at math than English-speaking Americans. In short, the structure of the Chinese and other Asian languages is more conducive to mathematical concepts like counting and remembering numbers. He also ties math skills back to the nature of farming rice paddies, which was a meticulous and continuous task. Attention to detail then grew to be a part of the overall culture in rice-farming countries.

From this, I have decided that if my parents had bothered to teach me Tagalog (the Filipino language) or mention anything about my Filipino culture (other than that I’m distantly related to Imelda Marcos), or instill the work ethic and meticulous nature of my people in me, I could definitely be better at math. I have also decided that Gladwell’s piece is a very interesting and insightful read that I am definitely going to look further into and would encourage others to do the same.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Rice Paddies and Math Tests”

  1. Julia Perch says:

    Wow, that’s really interesting! I haven’t read Outliers but it’s been on my “to read” list for awhile now.

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